Community Broadband Schemes

Petition - Home Education: Draft Guidance and the Consultation – in the House of Commons at 4:56 pm on 15th November 2018.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Craig Whittaker.)

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling 4:58 pm, 15th November 2018

This is the first time that I have had the opportunity to lead an Adjournment debate. I am delighted to do so, today of all days, and to raise an issue that is of prime importance to my constituents. For a rural constituency such as Stirling, the issue of broadband continues to be high on the list of priorities. I promised in my maiden speech that I would continue to raise the issue of connectivity in Stirling, and I am grateful for the opportunity to do so today. I want to see all Stirling’s communities digitally enabled, connected by fibre or wireless, and I look forward to the day when I can get a mobile phone signal and a 4G service throughout my constituency. We are seeing some progress, but there is still some distance to go.

I want to talk about several broadband issues, including the difficulties that communities face when they set about improving their local broadband service. The first point that I will make—and it is an obvious point—is about what we mean when we use the word “fibre”, because it is important to understand what is meant by it. Fibre-optic cable provides high-speed data connectivity. We should be clear about the difference between “fibre” and full fibre. “Fibre” is not full fibre; full fibre to the premises is capable of gigabit speeds, and is a solution fit for the future.

Most users currently have a much slower, less reliable and limited hybrid service that depends on pre-internet copper infrastructure that was designed to carry phone calls and not data. It is just not honest advertising to describe a hybrid broadband connection as “superfast fibre broadband”. The Advertising Standards Authority should take a closer look at, and a more stringent approach to, the truthfulness of these claims, because they are plainly misleading.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Craig Whittaker.)

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling 5:00 pm, 15th November 2018

I hope that the Government will take the opportunity today to send a signal to the industry to get its house in order. Stirling’s broadband infrastructure is sub-optimal. It is inadequate and is not future-proof. It needs investment, and it needs intervention. While there is much in the way that BT has invested that is commendable, I cannot help but remain concerned that its investment plans remain based on commercial viability, rather than the requirements of delivering a truly national infrastructure network.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue to the House. Broadband is important to every one of us. If we represent a rural constituency, or a constituency with a mixture of urban and rural areas, the issue is very real. Does he agree that the 100,000 people in Northern Ireland who do not have access to superfast broadband have a right to the same service as people who live perhaps 10 miles away in the towns? More must be done to remove what he has referred to as the postcode lottery and to enable small businesses to operate to an acceptable standard in the rural communities where they are based.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling

I completely agree. There is a need for investment to create a truly national all-inclusive infrastructure network.

BT’s lack of investment in solutions for exchange-only connections is an example of what I am talking about. This will continue until we see a real divergence between BT Openreach and BT itself. Openreach should be charged with the delivery of this national infrastructure system to allow Britain to become a truly digital nation and an economy fit for the future.

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan

I am following my hon. Friend’s speech with great interest. He represents Stirling and we all think of Stirling as being the city of Stirling but it is a large rural constituency much like my constituency of Banff and Buchan, and we face similar issues, as we have discussed. We are often told that what we have to overcome are the technical, geographical and topographical issues, but these same premises have power cables and water lines going through the same topographical areas. It is actually a matter of cost.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling

My hon. Friend makes a good point and I will come on to address some of the issues he has kindly raised.

It amazes me, when I listen to the stories of community broadband groups in my constituency, that community broadband schemes ever happen at all. It was a pleasure to be present at the official launch of the Balquhidder community broadband in March this year. Balquhidder is the resting place of Rob Roy MacGregor, perhaps the glen’s most famous son; he was an outlaw, thief and folk hero. It is a scattered rural community in one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland, which can also now boast one of the fastest broadband connections in the UK.

That is down to David Johnston and Richard Harris, two of my constituents, who belong to Balquhidder and who are real heroes in my eyes. They have shown true determination and grit to get this project through. I have met Richard and David many times and their perseverance and tenacity, and indeed that of the whole community, in the face of immovable slow government and unhelpful bureaucracy is inspiring. It is an example of the power of the people. David Johnston met my right hon. Friend Matt Hancock when he was Minister of State at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in Stirling to discuss the project. I invite the Minister to come to Balquhidder to hear Richard and David’s story for herself, because although the project came to fruition this year it started way back in 2007. Their experience was extraordinary; it was of official meeting after official meeting and of a series of ongoing disappointments and setbacks. When they started out, BT and the Scottish Government both withheld critical information from them about where upgrades would be happening and which communities would benefit from public funding. That meant that community schemes the length and breadth of Scotland were held up by indecision and dither.

European state aid rules cover broadband investment. That means that, when an area benefits from state-funded infrastructure, it cannot benefit from a second investment. These European rules narrow the field of Government aid, and that has meant that community schemes have been on hold for years while BT and the Scottish Government try to work out behind the scenes what their priorities and plans are. To some extent, we are still waiting, thanks to the state of dither they are in.

It is worth noting that these rules are widely and regularly ignored by other EU countries. The interpretation around intervention in digital infrastructure is a particularly egregious example of where the rules are not only infuriating but actively detrimental to our economy. Imagine for a moment if the EU told us we could not build a road, install a water pipe or upgrade a railway. It is a basic job of Government to ensure that critical national infrastructure is provided, including broadband infrastructure in rural communities. However, because public money is being used, they must conform to an endless litany of rules and regulation.

A similarly convoluted story is told in the Trossachs area, in a beautiful rural community in Stirling around the village of Brig o’ Turk and the visually impressive Ben Venue. This community pursued a wireless technology solution. It explored interesting and innovative technologies, only to be let down by Stirling Council, which finally scrapped its community broadband group in favour of taking direct political control. That was a regrettable decision and many community groups have expressed their frustration to me about that decision.

Many other issues impact negatively on community broadband schemes. They include the difficulties communities have establishing wayleaves with public sector organisations, especially the Forestry Commission, which see such things as an opportunity for revenue and profiteering, and the withdrawal of the UK broadband voucher scheme, which happened with no notice. That was another regrettable decision that left some communities without a viable scheme to draw resources from and no clarity at the time on what would replace it. I know that a replacement scheme has since come in, but the capriciousness of Government remains a real issue for community schemes.

The plethora of Government schemes thrown at communities is also a real problem. Community Broadband Scotland failed miserably in its objective to fund and develop community schemes. Its dithering and ineptitude have caused many community groups to turn away from this path. Then there is the involvement of Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband, which has done some good work but lacks transparency about its priorities and plans. That leaves communities without a clear idea of how they can get involved in bringing broadband to their community. Broadband Delivery UK has been slow to act in Scotland and, as I have said, has left communities high and dry by abandoning schemes and being unclear about its approach to local full-fibre networks in rural Scotland.

I have previously said in this House that I am concerned about the use of the national productivity investment fund for broadband investments, as recently outlined in the Budget speech. That is of absolutely no help to my constituents, or to Scottish constituencies. It is money that will be Barnettised and passed to the Scottish Government and, on past performance, the Scottish Government will not invest the money but continue their dithering.

Of course, this is not the only budgetary issue that affects my constituents. In England, the UK Government have created legislative measures to provide 100% business rates relief on new fibre infrastructure. In Scotland, we still await any like-for-like measure from the Scottish Government. Balquhidder is saddled with this cost, as are community schemes the length and breadth of Scotland. Again, while the UK Government act, the Scottish Government dither. In Scotland, the Scottish Government posture, claiming credit for every good thing, while blaming the UK Government for everything else. How, I ask the Minister, has this been allowed to happen?

Can the Minister assure me that her Department is fully cognisant of its responsibilities for broadband provision in Scotland? My hope is that she is open to my gentle but forthright encouragement that the Department should be seen to be far more active in Scotland than it has been. Scottish taxpayers pay toward expenses in reserved areas such as this, just as English taxpayers do, and it is not right that the UK Government should be handing over this reserved area to the ineptitude of the Scottish Government and stepping away.

We have seen some improvement over the past year, and I pay tribute to Ministers in the Department for their approach, but I hope the Minister will take the opportunity of this debate to commit to further action. The SNP has done with broadband what it has done with every issue: it has turned it into a grievance-inspired wedge so that it can talk about independence. That is as predictable as it is tedious, as the SNP does the same with health, education, transport, finance and agriculture —the list goes on.

Now we come to the real problem with broadband in Scotland. The Scottish Government have led communities down a garden path with promises of a shining city—a digital Jerusalem, if you will—and with their much-vaunted R100 project. The object of this project is to deliver by 2021 broadband services with a speed of more than 30 megabits per second to every household and business in Scotland. I commend to the Minister the Audit Scotland report from the spring of this year. It is bathed in the language we would expect of auditors, but it identified a clear problem with the R100 scheme, in that the timescale is unachievable given that the contract will not be awarded until next year—2019—and the objective is for 2021.

There is no adequate, long-term overall strategy. The Scottish Government’s objective is totally unrealistic. They are touting R100 as a catch-all solution to Scotland’s digital gap, as if saying the word often enough will get everyone to believe that. That approach belies the complexity and difficulty of getting the remaining properties connected to a superfast internet connection.

It is time for the Minister to reassess this issue and the UK Government’s whole approach to broadband delivery, especially in Scotland. Our vision should be for universal fibre-to-premise provision. We all know why that is necessary. We all know it will create jobs and allow people to live in remote and rural areas, such as those that make up most of my constituency. We all know that this is about educating the young, building viable businesses and providing remote healthcare into the future.

We should set an ambition of achieving a fully digitised, connected United Kingdom with a universal service of fibre to premise. That level of ambition will endow the British people with a technological edge. We should support communities to deliver that in every corner of these islands. It is time for the UK Government to really step up to the plate and to deliver for Scotland what the Scottish Government have consistently failed to deliver.

Photo of Margot James Margot James The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport 5:13 pm, 15th November 2018

I congratulate my hon. Friend Stephen Kerr on securing this important debate on community broadband schemes, which are valuable mechanisms that allow people to group together and work with operators to deliver broadband in their local areas. My hon. Friend is to be congratulated on his passion, his commitment and his knowledge of the issue of rural broadband.

I agree about the importance of supporting rural broadband, given how absolutely essential a decent broadband speed is for individuals to lead their lives today. Broadband is as important as any other utility, and it is fundamental to the country’s growth, prosperity and competitiveness.

The Chancellor has set ambitious targets for full-fibre, rather than copper, roll-out, aiming for nationwide coverage by 2033 and to ensure that at least half the country is covered by 2025. Rural broadband is a particular priority for this Government, and we are focused on ensuring that the whole UK, including Scotland, benefits from this new strategy.

Everyone should be able to participate in our digital society to use Government services, to complete homework, to communicate with family and to work in the digital age. Of course, future opportunities and benefits from remote healthcare and learning, and technologies such as artificial intelligence and the internet of things, mean that 5G will have to be available to everyone in the future, no matter where they live or work. That will also depend on fibre roll-out. The Government are working hard to make sure that that happens.

We published the future telecoms infrastructure review in July 2018, setting out a national long-term strategy for digital connectivity to meet the Government’s full-fibre target. I agree with my hon. Friend on the definition of what we mean by a full-fibre connection. We do not mean a hybrid version; we mean fibre to the premises. I sympathise with what he said about what I agree is misleading advertising.

We recognise in our strategy that although commercial investment will deliver in most parts of the country, there is a case for Government support for investment in those areas where a commercial solution is highly unlikely to be found. We are committed to reaching those rural areas first, in what we call the outside-in approach. Those living in such areas—around 10% of the country—will be able to benefit from gigabit connectivity at the same pace as the rest of the country with public investment. Everyone should be able to benefit from world-class connectivity, and we are committed to nobody, and no part of the country, being left behind.

We have made good progress. The £1.7 billion Broadband Delivery UK superfast programme has provided access to superfast broadband for 4.75 million homes and businesses that would otherwise not have got such connectivity, and we have now reached 95% access to superfast broadband for the country as a whole. I recognise that that still means that 5% of the country, an above average amount of which is in rural areas, is still waiting for superfast connectivity.

Despite the success we have enjoyed, there is a tough challenge in remoter areas, including parts of my hon. Friend’s constituency. As he said in his eloquent speech, there is clearly more that our Government, and indeed the Scottish Government, can and should be doing. The Government have invested more than double the per-head funding for the superfast programme in Scotland compared with England, which has enabled Digital Scotland to provide superfast access to 93.7% of premises in Scotland.

As my hon. Friend said, we are investing £200 million in the rural gigabit connectivity programme that was announced in the Chancellor’s Budget a few weeks ago. The programme will bring full fibre to remote and rural areas, delivering improved connectivity that is reliable, gigabit-capable and future-proofed. It will mean that people living in rural areas will no longer have to put up with slower speeds than those in urban areas. That will provide the connectivity that businesses in rural areas need to survive and thrive, and the recent evaluation of the superfast programme showed a combined increase in turnover of £9 billion for local businesses that benefited from that roll-out.

The rural gigabit connectivity programme will trial models for local hubs in rural areas, starting with primary schools, alongside vouchers for funding full-fibre connectivity to tens of thousands of homes and businesses across the UK, which will benefit from a fibre spine that will enable gigabit-capable connections. The project will be delivered directly through providers, and that applies to the money that is being made available to Scotland as well. We will work with agencies, including the Scottish Government, to identify suitable schools and public buildings, but the money will go to providers, not the Scottish Government directly. The public buildings will likely be in areas that are sparsely populated and mostly rural, including the borderlands, as well as Cornwall and the Welsh valleys. Community broadband schemes can play a valuable part in improving connectivity in such rural areas, particularly by driving innovation and participation locally.

My hon. Friend detailed unsettling accounts of the bureaucratic difficulties that have been posed to community operations that seek to benefit from the community broadband project schemes. I congratulate his constituents David Johnston and Richard Harris on persevering against the odds to establish the Balquhidder community broadband project. I also congratulate them on winning the Scottish rural action transport and infrastructure award for 2018 for their fantastic efforts. This really should not be as difficult as my hon. Friend has detailed.

I have something encouraging to say. We constantly work, through the very good barrier-busting taskforce that we have established in the Department, to break down barriers in rural areas. We have worked to give providers greater rights to access land and a fairer price for exercising their wayleaves, and we are considering introducing legislation on reinforcing wayleaves’ rights of access and new builds, so we recognise what my hon. Friend has said and we are taking action. As a precursor to legislation, when parliamentary time permits, the barrier-busting taskforce has issued a lot of guidance to local bodies and providers on how to use the changes in rules that we have at least overseen in the past 18 months.

Community broadband schemes play a very valuable role, and we want to encourage community networks. We have published guidance on our website to help to support those who are interested in following this route. We do recognise the challenges and complexities, and we want to work with partners to ensure we are able to mitigate risks and challenges, particularly in places such as rural Scotland and the Welsh valleys. All that builds on our £290 million investment into the local full-fibre networks programme and the gigabit broadband voucher scheme. They have already benefited many rural areas and aim to catalyse the commercial roll-out of full-fibre broadband. Both programmes are UK-wide, and I am pleased to say that we have already seen a high level of engagement with the programmes in Scotland. The Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire area was selected as one of our market test areas for the gigabit broadband voucher scheme, and the highlands made a successful bid for £4.7 million in the first round of the challenge fund. These interventions will help further to reduce the footprint of the R100 programme. We welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to that programme, and officials are working closely to ensure that the R100 superfast ambitions can align with sand support our full-fibre ambitions.

As well as this vital work to deliver connectivity that is fit for the long term, we have also introduced the broadband universal service obligation, which will ensure that, by 2020, everyone across the UK has a clear, enforceable right to request high-speed broadband of at least 10 megabits per second. The USO is designed as a safety net and will at least ensure that no one has to wait to access Government services and to start to take part in our digital society, but the target of delivering nationwide full-fibre coverage by 2033 is challenging and will require industry, the UK Government and the devolved Administrations to work together. The fact that we successfully hit our target of 95% superfast coverage is a huge credit to the hard work, skill and commitment of the Broadband Delivery UK team and all our partners, including Digital Scotland, and I thank them. I also commend my predecessors in my current role: my right hon. Friend Matt Hancock, the former Secretary of State; and my right hon. Friend Mr Vaizey.

I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling. I look forward to hearing more about the success of the community project he spoke about in the House today, and to building on that success and encouraging other community projects to take inspiration from his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.